Futures studies: the field and the associated community

by VipulNaik5 min read2nd Jul 20142 comments

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Technological Forecasting
Personal Blog

Note: This post is part of my series of posts on forecasting and related topics, related to my contract work for MIRI. While I think the post would interest a sufficiently large fraction of the LessWrong readership for it to be worth posting, it's not of as much general interest as some of my other recent posts. I do expect some of the information in the post to be new and useful to people who have hitherto associated futurology primarily with a few big names such as Ray Kurzweil, or are unaware of the distinction between the academic communities devoted to forecasting and futures studies.

This post is part of documentation of work I'm doing for MIRI on forecasting in various domains. This particular post is on the topic of futures studies, also known as futurology (Wikipedia). Futures studies is basically the study of the future, or rather, of possibilities for the future. I'd originally thought that the term would be futurism, but that term is used for an art movement.

What is futures studies, and how does it relate to forecasting?

Futures studies can crudely be thought of as forecasting the future, but while forecasting is an important component, futures studies often has the goal of guiding or shaping the future. It's called futures studies rather than future studies because it's the study of possible futures, how to cope with them, and possibly, how to bring them about (see, for instance, the futures techniques called backcasting and causal layered analysis).

Another difference between forecasting and futures studies is that while forecasting is typically done for specific timeframes, futures studies can be more amorphous: it can involve imagining and describing things that might exist in the future, without assigning either an expected time of arrival or a probability of realization. Futures studies can operate over time horizons ranging from 1-2 years to the very longest horizons of centuries that I discussed in a previous post. In general, the focus is not on getting the dates or probabilities right, but rather on describing what's possible.

Clearly, it's harder to evaluate the quality of work in futures studies compared to work in forecasting. With forecasting, the quality of forecasts can be judged by looking at the accuracy, bias, and utility to planners. Futures studies does not generally involve clear, falsifiable predictions. Thus, anybody can pontificate about the future and be labeled a futurologist, and it's not clear what criteria can be used to exclude the person from the futures studies community.

One way out is to start with an existing cluster of futures techniques, futures studies organizations, research centers, journals, and people, see what concepts they promote and what other entities they relate with. Indeed, there is a reasonably interconnected academic futures studies community and set of futures studies journals that can be used to bootstrap this process. It's not clear to me why an outsider (such as me) should grant credibility to this cluster. Indeed, unlike the case of the forecasting community (that I described in an earlier post), I haven't (yet) been convinced that this community as a whole deserves deference in questions of thinking about the future, relative to people outside this community who might spend time thinking about the relevant issues. Incidentally, an article by Michael Marien titled Futures-thinking and identity: Why “Futures Studies” is not a field, discipline, or discourse: a response to Ziauddin Sardar's ‘the namesake’ goes over the issue of the lack of clarity in what it means to be a futurologist.

Organizations and research centers involved with futures studies

  • World Future Society (website, Wikipedia)
  • Association of Professional Futurists (website, Wikipedia)
  • World Futures Studies Federation (website, Wikipedia): Founded in 1973, the organization aims to promote futures studies as an academic discipline.
  • The Graduate Institute of Futures Studies at Tamkang University, Taiwan (website). This publishes the Journal of Futures Studies.
  • Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies (website, Wikipedia)
  • School of International Futures (website)

Wikipedia also has a list of research centers that includes MIRI, and a longer list of futures studies organizations.

Journals and magazines in futures studies

For a longer list, see here.

  • Futures (The journal of policy, planning, and futures studies) (website, Wikipedia): Published by Elsevier, this seems to be the most serious academic journal in the futures studies domain. It has an impact factor of about 1.1. Most of the widely cited futures studies papers I encountered were in this journal.
  • Journal of Futures Studies (website): This is associated with the Futures Studies program at Tamkang University, Taiwan. It has an impact factor of about 0.25.
  • The Futurist, the magazine of the World Future Society (website)
  • Technological Forecasting and Social Change (website, Wikipedia): Not strictly a futures studies journal, but close. This is the go-to journal for research on the Delphi method.
  • foresight (website, Wikipedia) (not to be confused with Foresight: The International Journal of Applied Forecasting, a forecasting journal)
  • European Journal of Futures Research

Websites (in addition to the organization websites)

Key people

  • There is a fairly long and heterogeneous list on Wikipedia, but it includes a lot of historical figures (such as past science fiction writers) as well as journalists who are not necessarily the people at the cutting-edge of developing futures studies ideas today.
  • The list of World Futures Studies Federation Fellows is a reasonable starting point if you are interested in current academics in futures studies. In addition, consider looking at the editors, editorial board, and writers for the Journal of Futures Studies and Futures.
  • One name that repeatedly came up in my Internet search and exploration for futures studies was Sohail Inayatullah (Wikipedia). He introduced the concept of causal layered analysis (Wikipedia), co-runs the metafuture.org website, and seems to be involved with many of the futures studies journal. However, I'm not sure if his Internet prominence accurately reflects or overstates his intellectual contribution.

Other background reading

Relation between futures studies and scenario planning

In an earlier blog post, I described scenario planning and what it's used for. How does this relate with futures studies? I couldn't get a clear answer, so the points below are just crude impressions of mine. They could be quite misguided.

  • Most simply, scenario planning can be considered one of the techniques used in futures studies. Therefore, we can think of the study of scenario planning as a branch of futures studies.
  • Historically, both scenario planning and futures studies arose out of the pioneering work of Herman Kahn at the RAND Corporation and later at the Hudson Institute.
  • My impression (and I don't have high confidence in this) is that scenario planning ideas are more common in businesses, governments, and policy organizations, whereas futures studies ideas are more common among specific clusters in academia, science fiction, and entertainment. However, a reasonable fraction of futures studies literature is about the analysis of specific situations, such as agriculture or education in a particular country. So this difference may not be all that profound.
  • Another impression I get is that futures studies is less moored in reality than scenario planning (this might be related to scenario planning being more established as something that businesses and governments deploy for practical purposes). I have lower confidence in the utility of futures studies as currently consituted than I do in scenario planning.

Relation between futures studies and forecasting (more)

The Wikipedia article on futures techniques lists a number of techniques for futures studies. Some of these are also of use in open-ended forecasting problems, but they are not of much use in short-term forecasting where the structure of the situation is well-understood and we need to predict a binary or continuous variable within that known structure. Some of the methods that overlap between medium-term forecasting and futures studies are:

  • Delphi method (Wikipedia)
  • Scenario analysis/scenario planning, as mentioned above.

The interaction/overlap between the forecasting community (as described in an earlier post) and the futures studies community seems minimal. There is some interaction: for instance, forecasting guru J. Scott Armstrong has written one article in the Journal of Futures Studies, and Armstrong's 1970 book Long-Range Forecasting is cited and used in futures studies programs.

Futurologists outside the futures studies cluster described here

There are many self-styled futurologists who fall outside the futures studies community as described here. Some of them belong to the scenario planning community, some belong to the forecasting community, some work in general predictive analytics, and some are subject matter experts in specific domains. A particular cluster of futurologists who fall outside the cluster described above is technology futurists. These are people enamored with technology, often technology as it relates to computers, automation, and the natural sciences. Indeed, I expect that most people at LessWrong are more familiar with this brand of futures scientists. Examples are:

  • Ray Kurzweil, who runs kurzweilai.net and has an exponential progress-based view of the technological singularity (in contrast with the Yudkowsky view). Kurzweil has been evaluated on LessWrong before. Although Kurzweil appears on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the list of futurologists, he doesn't seem to be cited much in futures studies literature.
  • Michio Kaku, a physicist who has written books about the future such as Physics of the Future.
  • The website www.exponentialtimes.net.

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Michio Kaku, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist

Don't think so.

Oops! Thanks, I removed the "Nobel Prize-winning" part. I don't know why and how I formed that misconception.